National Aquarium

With so many free world-class attractions on the Mall and an enormous aquarium close-by in Baltimore, it can be easy to overlook DC’s outpost of the National Aquarium tucked into the basement of the Commerce Department. Despite my son’s love of sea creatures, I had been reluctant to visit DC’s aquarium for years because I wasn’t sure it was worth the admission fee. Once I bit the bullet and visited the aquarium, I was glad I did. Nearly everyone I know who has made it is glad they made the trip at least once.

While the “DC Aquarium,” as it’s known in my house is small, it does have a lot to offer. Among the animals that call the aquarium home are alligators, plenty of sharks, giant turtles, frogs, snakes, salamanders, electric eels, fish from all over the world, sea horses, and even an octopus. It is likely that younger children will need to be picked up to see some exhibits, but several of the tanks are low enough to the ground to enable little ones to view the animals with ease. Some other exhibits have benches that little ones can stand on to get a good view of the animals.

There is also a Sustainable Seafood exhibit where children can learn about the impact eating certain kinds of fish can have on the environment and aquatic populations as well as a small room dedicated to sharks, with a short video about the feared ocean dwellers and an interactive spinning wheel that contains various facts about them. It’s easy to spend about an hour with your child looking at everything in the aquarium and some families stay longer lingering on the alligators or other favorite animal. The aquarium is usually fairly empty and the very friendly staff is always willing to answer questions.

In addition to the regular exhibits there are daily animal feedings and talks at 2pm daily. The feedings rotate between piranhas, sharks, and alligators. You can check the calendar of events to see which animal is going to be fed on the day of your visit.

If you have a preschooler and want to get a little more out of your visit, the Aquarium holds a popular Tors & Tales program the first and third Friday of each month at 10:30am. Tots & Tales is extremely well done and includes a book, an experiment, a craft, and a short visit to visit one or two aquarium tanks with a talk by an aquarist designed just for kids. The program runs about 30 to 45 minutes. The staff that runs Tots & Tales seems to really enjoy holding the program and it shows. Each Tots & Tales program focuses on a different animal in the aquarium with occasional programs focused on the environment.

My two and five year olds have both enjoyed all of the Tots & Tales programs we have attended, but if your child has a strong interest in a particular sea creature you can visit on day when Tots & Tales will focus on that animal. Our most recent visit to Tots & Tales focused on octopuses and was typical of other Tots & Tales we have attended around different themes. The aquarist leading the session had an octopus puppet and some toy octopuses available for kids to play with before the program began. She then read a children’s book about octopuses asking the children questions along the way. After the experiment, the children were given suction cups like those found on octopus tentacles and were allowed to explore the room to see on which kinds of surfaces an octopus was and was not likely to be able to stick to. Next, children were given supplies to make their own octopus out of Styrofoam balls, yarn, and googly eyes. After craft-making, the aquarist led the group to see the aquarium’s very own octopus. The octopus was a little shy, but children were told some facts about octopuses and the aquarist eventually got the resident octopus to briefly come out of hiding.

Admission is $9.95 for adults, $8.95 for members of the military, and $4.95 for children 3 to 11. Children 2 and under are free. There is no additional cost for Tots & Tales. Tickets allow you to enter multiple times on the same day so you could conceivably visit in the morning, leave for lunch or a stop at another museum, then return in the afternoon for the alligator feeding.

The DC location of the National Aquarium is a cousin of the better known National Aquarium in DC and membership will get you unlimited annual admission to both. If you plan on visiting either location more than a couple of times a year a membership at one of several available levels might make sense for your family. Purchasing a 3-Day, 3-Attraction pass for $34.00 is another option and will get you access to the DC location of the National Aquarium, the National Crime Museum, and Madame Tussauds.

No food or drink is allowed in the Aquarium, but plenty of seating and food is available in the food court of the Ronald Regan building across the street and in the cafeterias in the National Museum of American History around the corner.

The DC location of the National Aquarium is located near Metro Center and Federal Triangle. There is metered parking available near the Aquarium but it can be difficult to find open spaces on weekday afternoons and weekends. The Aquarium is stroller friendly. There is a ramp leading to the Aquarium’s entrance. After going through security, an elevator takes you down to the Aquarium which is completely flat. It is common to see strollers left in the hallway while little ones visit the sea creatures.

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OK Editorial Team

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